Saturday, January 9, 2021

Genesis: In the beginning

Portrait of a teen-age band: Phillips, Rutherford, Banks, Gabriel, Stewart

One of the more shocking realizations I've had recently is that it's been close to a half-century since Peter Gabriel recorded an album with Genesis -- I've been listening to those records fairly regularly going on 50 years. As I recall, there has never been a long gap since my first encounter in late 1974 when I haven't listened to any of those albums.

The last one, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was my entry into this catalog. I caught up to the six previous albums (five studio, one live) in something less than a year, as I recall. Most all of them have been in rotation on all my devices ever since.

I do know most all of this stuff well -- with the exception of the first two albums. I've only heard each of those a handful of times over the years. The classic lineup -- Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Michael Rutherford and Steve Hackett -- came together on the third album, Nursery Cryme. And the difference is quite noticeable. Hackett's slithering electric guitar replaced Anthony Phillips' folksy 12-string acoustic, and Collins' virtuosity on the drums finally added that missing ingredient the band couldn't get from his three predecessors. Those two guys turned a band experimenting with what I call prog-folk into full-on prog-rockers.

I never listened much to those first two records. Coming at them from a few years on the other side, I found nothing there beyond mildly interesting. So I decided a week or so ago that before I start writing about the Genesis catalog, I should study the Phillips-era albums with a few listens and a little bit of historical research. And I've done that. Bottom line: Though I still haven't heard anything that merges with my DNA, I do now have a clearer understanding of their place in the evolution of this fascinating band.

From Genesis to Revelation was the vision of Jonathan King, a young record producer looking to find stardom with a group of kids whose real ambition was to make it as professional songwriters. Phillips and Rutherford had been writing together on 12-string acoustic guitars, while childhood friends Gabriel and Banks had been working on a sort of soul-classical music hybrid. The four got together with another schoolmate, drummer Chris Stewart, to record some demos, which found their way into King's hands. King told the lads to boil their compositions down to two- and three-minute pop songs and got them into a studio in late 1967 and again in summer 1968 with a different drummer, John Silver.

Silver topped those recordings off with some string and horn charts, and the kids went back to school for their final year while King worked with Decca Records to get a couple singles and the album released in late 1968 and early 1969. Neither the singles nor the album made a dent on initial release. King, though, steadfastly held onto the publishing rights of those songs and has struck gold repackaging them several times as a historical artifact.

From Genesis to Revelation, in retrospect, is OK. It's not bad. But there's not much special that would lead you to believe it should have gone anywhere but the bargain bin. You can hear the seeds of what could have become classic Genesis songs. Gabriel does establish himself here as a legitimate frontman, Banks appears capable on the keyboards. The rest of the players are competent. To me, the album sounds like what bands such as the Moody Blues and Procol Harum were doing at the time. It is what it is, probably interesting to no one beyond the hard-core fans like me.

Trespass, the second album, happened after the two young songwriting teams decided upon graduating from school to give it a go as a real band. They put together a setlist with the long, complex, dramatic compositions that King didn't want and took on yet another new drummer, John Mayhew. The spent a few months in 1969 and 1970 touring England before signing on with Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith, who loved their new sound. They recorded Trespass in summer 1970 and released it the following October.

This is the album that started Genesis on the path to success. It's still not in my wheelhouse, though. I hear the foundation of a great band here, but most of the album is too reliant on acoustic, mystical grandeur for my liking. The closing number, "The Knife," is the first taste we get of the hard-edged, darker tone that would eventually pull me into this world.

Genesis almost didn't get to that next step, though. Shortly after Trespass was released, Phillips quit with a sudden onset of stage fright. Banks says Phillips' departure was the closest the band ever came to folding. But Banks, Gabriel and Rutherford decided to stick it out. They fired Mayhew, started auditioning drummers and guitar players and worked up some new material for the next album. We'll pick up the story from here at a later time.

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